The algae outbreak started nine months ago and has become the state's longest on record since 2006. The red tide has killed scores of marine life, including countless crabs, eels and fish, as well as dozens of manatees, hundreds of endangered sea turtles, potentially a whale shark and 11 bottlenose dolphins.
By Karl Havens
Editor's note: Two large-scale algae outbreaks in Florida are killing fish and threatening public health. Along the southwest coast, one of the longest-lasting red tide outbreaks in the state's history is affecting more than 100 miles of beaches. Meanwhile, discharges of polluted fresh water from Lake Okeechobee and polluted local runoff water from the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee watersheds have caused blooms of blue-green algae in downstream estuaries on both coasts. Karl Havens, a professor at the University of Florida and director of the Florida Sea Grant Program, explains what's driving this two-pronged disaster.
Hundreds of sea turtles have washed up dead along the southwest Florida coast as an ongoing red tide event persists in the waters.
Between 300 to 400 dead sea turtles were found floating seven nautical miles off the Jiquilisco Bay Biosphere Reserve in El Salvador, the country's Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) tweeted yesterday.
The majority of the creatures were already decomposing when they were found, the ministry said. The species was not revealed.
Hundreds of dead tufted puffins began washing up in the Bering Sea in October, as unusually warm water may have upended the bird's food chain.
Far out on the remote Pribilof Islands, a few dead puffins were found in early October, but within days volunteers were finding from 20 to 40 birds a day. By now, several hundred birds have washed ashore.
The Environmental Regulation Commission voted 3-2 Tuesday to approve a proposal by state regulators that would set new standards on 39 chemicals not currently regulated by the Sunshine State and revise regulations on 43 toxins, most of which are carcinogenic. State regulators claim the new plan will protect more Floridians than current standards, the Miami Herald reported.
"We have not updated these parameters since 1992," Cari Roth, chairwoman of the commission, told the Miami Herald. "It is more good than harm. The practical effect is, it is not going to increase the amount of toxins going into our waters."
Under the new proposal, acceptable levels of toxins in Florida waters will increase for more than 24 known carcinogens. The acceptable levels would decrease for 13 chemicals that are currently regulated.
The new regulations are based on a one-of-a-kind scientific method the Florida Department of Environmental Protection created, called "Monte Carlo." The method is being criticized by environmental groups, warning the new standards would allow polluters to dump high concentrations of dangerous chemicals into Florida's rivers and streams.
"Monte Carlo gambling with our children's safety is unacceptable," Marty Baum, of Indian Riverkeeper, said.
The known carcinogens can be released by oil and gas drilling companies, dry cleaning companies, pulp and paper producers, nuclear plants, wastewater treatment plants and agriculture. While most of these industries are supportive of the new rules, pulp and paper producers still think the measures are too restrictive.
Florida's proposal will now head to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its approval. Several members of Florida's congressional delegation have sent a letter to voice their concerns to the EPA. The letter calls for a public comment period to carefully evaluate the proposal.
If the EPA still decides to approve the proposal, Linda Young, executive director of the Clean Water Network, said the organization "absolutely ... will file suit."
Florida's easement of regulations on carcinogenic and toxic chemicals could be another threat to the state's waterways and the health of residents. The state is already challenged by "guacamole-thick" algae.
This year's bloom, which first appeared earlier this month, is the eighth such bloom since 2004, National Geographic reported. The outbreak has spread to Florida estuaries and has caused state officials to declare a state of emergency for four counties.
"This is absolutely the worst," Evan Miller, founder of Citizens for Clean Water, told National Geographic. "We've never seen algae so thick. You can see it from space. There are places ... that are on their third and fourth cycle of blooms now."
Blue-green algae, cyanobacteria, thrives in warm, calm water. Two conditions that are currently working against eradicating the blooms are climate change and political inertia—or in Florida's case, as water advocates believe, politics moving backward on regulations.
A mysterious green foam that looks like it was taken straight out of Ghost Busters, emerged from a street vent in an Utah town.
Residents in Bluffdale, Utah, about 20 miles south of Salt Lake City, were terrified to find a foam-like green substance coming out of a street vent from a sewer on Thursday. City officials were concerned the blob was related to an algae bloom in Utah Lake. But test results show the two are separate issues. The green foam is a product of a nearby canal's moss treatment.
Chemicals used to clear canals of moss foam up like the blob in question, said Nicholas Rupp of the Salt Lake County Health Department.
Donna Spangler, communications director for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, backed up Rupp's statement. She told Live Science that the foam "has nothing to do with algae ... It had something to do with an irrigation cleaning, and it was basically soapy moss."
The street vent producing the mysterious foam is connected to the Welby Jacobs Canal. Residents had requested to use water from the canal to water their grass and crops. Shortly afterward, the foam made its appearance. The foam began to recede after the irrigation line connected to the canal was shut off, city engineer Michael Fazio said.
The health department said the foam does not pose any health hazards.
Though the green foam is not tied to algae, 90 percent of Utah Lake is covered with a toxic algae bloom with nearby tributaries affected, Spangler said.
Utah Lake is closed due to concerns about cyanobacteria algae, which may release toxins harmful to the brain and liver, said Joseph Miner, executive director of the Utah Department of Health. Algae growth is attributed to high temperatures, low lake levels and high concentrations of phosphorous.
By Codi Kozacek
A year after the most intense bloom of toxic algae on record engulfed Lake Erie, the lake is set to get a reprieve this summer. Federal forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict this year's bloom will register a 5.5 in severity, about half the level recorded last year and significantly less than the bloom in 2014 that shut down water supplies for nearly half a million people in Toledo, Ohio.
A satellite image captured on July 15, 2016 shows the beginning of an algal bloom. Forecasters predict this summer's bloom will be much smaller than the record-setting bloom last year.MODIS / NOAA CoastWatch
Still, work to rid the shallowest Great Lake from the annual blooms that contaminate drinking water, close beaches and create aquatic "dead zones" is far from over, warned researchers and water managers gathered at Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory last week. Hundreds of metric tons of phosphorus, a nutrient contained in fertilizer, manure and sewage, continue to wash down the Maumee River each year into Lake Erie's western basin, where the influx fuels the bloom of blue-green algae.
The small size predicted for this year's bloom is more a function of dry weather in the Maumee Basin rather than big reductions in phosphorus. Just as record rains in the basin last year triggered a massive bloom, dry conditions this spring meant less water to carry phosphorus off the land and into the lake. As a result, total "loads" of the type of phosphorus that can be used by algae are expected to be about one-third the amount washed into the lake last year.
"The reality is that rain is really driving our loads at this point in time," said Laura Johnson, director of the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University, which tracks the nutrients flowing into Lake Erie.
That means one dry year with a small algal bloom does not indicate the problem is solved. It will take a 40 percent reduction in the amount of phosphorus flowing down the Maumee and other Lake Erie tributaries to control the blooms in the long-run, according to new targets adopted in February by the U.S. and Canada. Further, the blooms in Lake Erie are just one facet of the burgeoning nutrient pollution problem across the nation and the globe. Attention this year is focused on the noxious blooms along Florida's Treasure Coast, where the state's governor declared a state of emergency in June. But blooms also plague Green Bay in Lake Michigan, Lake Taihu in China and the Murray-Darling River in Australia. The oxygen-depleted aquatic dead zones created when blooms die regularly form in Lake Erie, the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea.
Spurred by the poisoning of Toledo's drinking water supply in 2014—and a history of algal blooms dating to the mid-20th century—the research and management efforts being implemented in the Lake Erie watershed to curb phosphorus runoff are an important guidepost for these other systems.
"This is a state, country and global issue," said Chris Winslow, interim director of Stone Laboratory. "We're at the cutting edge of many of these studies right now. A lot of this is going to inform what a lot of people do throughout the country."
A Plan for Lake Erie
Over the past year and following decades of study, the Great Lakes states and provinces took their first concrete steps toward curbing phosphorus pollution and algal blooms in Lake Erie. An agreement signed between the premier of Ontario and the governors of Ohio and Michigan last June set an ambitious goal to cut phosphorus flowing into western Lake Erie by 40 percent by 2025. It also set the interim goal of a 20 percent reduction by 2020. The state-level commitment was followed by the adoption in February of 40 percent reduction targets under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA). While there is no timeline under the GLWQA, it does require the U.S. and Canada to develop domestic action plans by 2018 outlining how they will make the phosphorus cuts.
To meet those goals, land and water managers will need to focus on reducing runoff from farms in the Maumee River Basin, according to a study led by researchers at the University of Michigan. While stormwater runoff, discharges from municipal wastewater plants and septic systems can all contribute phosphorus, scientists estimate nearly 85 percent of the phosphorus flowing into Lake Erie from the Maumee comes from farm fertilizers and manure.
The study, released in April, analyzed a variety of agricultural management scenarios using watershed models to estimate how the practices would affect phosphorus discharges. In general, it found that agricultural practices meant to trap phosphorus on land will need to be widely adopted and that better results occur when those practices are targeted on land that currently releases high levels of phosphorus.
Specifically, only two scenarios achieved the new targets outlined under the GLWQA. The first would require the conversion of 50 percent of cropland to uncultivated grassland and is considered highly unrealistic.
The second would require the subsurface application of phosphorus fertilizers on half of the cropland that currently loses the most phosphorus. That prevents the fertilizer from sitting on top of the soil, where it can be washed off by rain. The scenario also calls for the use of rye cover crops and the installation of "medium quality" buffer strips on 50 percent more cropland than implements these practices now. Cover crops store the phosphorus in their roots and leaves, keeping it out of the soil so it cannot wash away, while "buffer" strips of vegetation slow the rain running off of fields, filtering out phosphorus before it reaches streams. As of 2013, approximately 8 percent of farms in the Maumee watershed used a rye cover crop and 35 percent of farms used buffer strips.
In a demonstration of agriculture's important role in reducing phosphorus, the study also examined a scenario in which all point sources of phosphorus—those that come out of a pipe, such as from a municipal wastewater plant—were eliminated completely. In that scenario, total phosphorus was reduced by just 5 percent and dissolved reactive phosphorus—the kind most usable by algae—was reduced by 10 percent.
"The 40 percent [target] is doable, but it's going to be a heavy lift," said Gail Hesse, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Water Program, speaking at the Stone Laboratory event. "It's going to need a steep investment and a steep ramp-up in our efforts to reach that target."
Codi Kozacek is a news correspondent for Circle of Blue based out of Hawaii. She writes The Stream, Circle of Blue's daily digest of international water news trends. Her interests include food security, ecology and the Great Lakes.
This article was reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.